What are these anti tenure cases really about? Are reformers convinced the workforce has more than its share of ineffective teachers? Or, are they concerned many teachers prefer to work in traditional schools where they can earn higher salaries and benefits? Thus, charters and private schools struggle to compete for high quality teachers.
There is a general anti union undercurrent, but I am continually surprised how few Floridians seem to know that tenure in Florida is a thing of the past. Why are other states filing law suits?
California’s Vergara case was filed in 2012. This complaint stated that tenure laws protected weak teachers. They were concentrated in schools serving low income students, and consequently were harming those children. The district court agreed. Last week, the appeals court over ruled the earlier decision. The appeals judges ruled that teacher assignment policies not tenure, resulted in disparities between teachers and schools in low income and higher income areas. Is either judge correct? Or, is this issue merely a form of misguided teacher bashing?
The person behind the Vergara case was David Welch, a silicon valley entrepreneur who founded Students Matter in 2011. When the Vergara plaintiffs won their first round in court, Campbell Brown, a former CNN news anchor turned education reformer, modeled similar lawsuits against teacher tenure in New York and Minnesota. Campbell Brown founded Partnership for Educational Justice and the Parents Transparency Project which strongly support school choice.
What is it that these suits seek? As stated by the state in Florida’s Citizens for Strong Schools case, teachers are reputed to be the most effective force in improving children’s learning. The argument is, therefore, that removing ineffective teachers is the most appropriate means to improve schools. Teacher unions resist this approach and argue that providing staff support, student services, and better professional development are essential to improve teaching and learning.
The lawsuits attacking tenure have common complaints:
- Length of probationary period. California’s laws granted tenure after two years, which many claim, is too short a time to determine effectiveness. Most laws require three to five years of experience.
- Last in, first out. Policies that mandate that most recent hires must be let go when school populations decline, are opposed by those who argue that tenure provides a sanctuary for too many ineffective teachers.
- Post tenure review. New Jersey’s governor argued that tenured ineffective teachers should be subject to dismissal.
- Evaluation system criteria and quality. Many evaluation systems are reputed to be invalid measures of quality or the lack thereof. In Florida, for example, few teachers (~2%) receive low ratings.
- Unreasonable dismissal process. Even when evaluations identify low performing teachers, dismissal rates are considered by tenure opponents to be unrealistically low. Evidence in the New York case reported that only 40 out of 826 attempts to dismiss teachers were actually fired.
Many non educators do not realize that attacks on K12 teacher tenure in Florida began in 1982. Tenure without dismissal was replaced by professional service contracts with an automatic renewal. Teachers, however, could be fired for just cause.
In 2011, Governor Scott signed SB 736 that altered the entire teacher evaluation system:
- Teachers hired after 2011 have a one-year probation and be subject to immediate dismissal. After the first year, they have annual contracts and annual reviews.
- Teachers hired prior to 2011 continue to have professional service contracts with automatic renewal, but they would be subject to immediate dismissal for just cause. All teachers, however, must renew their teacher certificates every five years, and those teachers with two sequential unsatisfactory ratings would be dismissed.
- Teachers receiving marginal ratings must undergo training. (Whether or not principals are willing to arrange for the appropriate remediation is a concern. It is suggested that it may be simply easier to give a low rating and dismiss the teacher).
- Workforce reduction must be based on program needs and performance evaluations, not last hired, first fired policies.
- Two salary plans performance (merit) or the years of teaching pay schedules are used. Teachers hired before 2011 are able to transfer to the merit plan, if they wish.
The Florida evaluation system was immediately challenged in court by the National Education Association. These evaluations even included test score gains of students teachers had not taught. The system was upheld, not because it was fair, the judge argued, but because it was ‘rational’. In other words, the outcome of the system may be unfair, but the system follows the law.
Unions in Florida continue to be advocates for reasonable salaries and working conditions. They are a strong voice for improving the quality of public education. After all, teachers are in the trenches and know best the impact of educational policy on student learning. They create a natural and usually healthy tension between change and sticking with ‘what works’. Teachers do not have tenure. Does it make a difference?